It was only just in the nick of time that the riders and their horses scrambled up the side of the ravine and into the shelter offered by the overhanging boulder, as the rain suddenly became heavier and the winds much stronger, lashing the grassy plains below with all their fury.
‘Well done, Jamal,’ Luther offered as the four riders stood there on the ledge holding their horses, with their soaking clothes clinging to their bodies. They were gazing out into the grey storm. ‘We were lucky that you spotted this place.’
Jamal managed a wan smile, but as he did so a cold shiver ran down his spine and his teeth started to chatter.
‘We must dry ourselves,’ Garrett said after he had noticed Jamal, and then his own lad, shivering.
Where they were standing, with the ledge that supported them being at the front of a deep cleft that seemed to lead back into the side of the hill, there was more than enough room for the four riders and their horses, yet they appeared to be far from any supply of wood or other resources that may be of use to them.
‘I agree,’ Jamal replied, while looking around him. ‘But how will we manage to do that, sire?’
‘What we do, lad, is we see what there is around us that can be of use to us, and then we make use of whatever we may have available,’ Garrett answered, as he passed the reins of his horse to Han.
Jamal watched as the knight started to search around them for anything that may be of use, before then glancing at his own master who he saw was standing there with a wry smile on his face.
Luther held his gaze for just a few moments, then turned away and started staring out into the grey storm that still raged outside, so Jamal then busied himself and started looking around as well.
Finding little that was of any use, apart from a few twigs and some dried grasses, he decided to investigate the deep cleft that ran back into the hillside behind where they now stood. It was a dark and shadowy place that seemed mysterious, yet somehow inviting, and so while Garrett continued his search of the many cracks and dimples along the rock walls that surrounded them, Jamal moved closer toward the blackness, moving cautiously along one of the walls and edging closer to a dark nothingness that seemed to be calling him.
It was the spot where it could be expected that the two walls of their shelter would meet, yet for some reason Jamal had this feeling that it was a place where he could expect the unexpected. He glanced back toward his companions and saw them and the horses silhouetted against the grey light that came from outside. Luther still stood rooted to the same spot, gazing out into the fury outside, while Han stood tending the horses. For a moment he could not find Garrett, but then he noticed him squatting down near one wall, apparently investigating something on the earthen floor.
Not one of his companions had taken any notice of him slipping away from them and so he turned his own attention back to the shadows before him, while his heart raced and his palms sweated. It was then for the first time that he felt something rather odd pass over him, although at first he could not quite place what it was.
It was something cold, yet it was something fresh. And mixed with its freshness was the familiar odour of damp earth.
He stopped and peered into the darkness ahead of him, but then once more the coldness swept over him. With his curiosity now aroused and with his hands edging along the wall that he was nearest, Jamal inched his way forward, eager to find the source of this oddity.
Slowly he worked his way forward, feeling his way along in the darkness, excited, yet with an overwhelming feeling of dread sweeping over him. When eventually he glanced back over his shoulder he could see only darkness, and it was then that he realised he had worked his way into a passage that appeared wide enough for two men to walk along, side by side, and which had taken a gradual turn.
He stopped and leant against one of the walls as wave after wave of fear rose and then fell within him. Part of him wanted to run back to his companions, who were now out of sight, yet part of him wanted to continue.
He knew what he must do. He knew he must continue. No matter the consequences he simply had to continue.
And so, with his body trembling slightly, that was what he did.
* * *
There was a something of a chill in the air on this morning as the knight climbed the stairs to the Great Hall of the Castle Carronne.
His name was Judayah of Enkarra, and he was a traitor to those with whom he had once ridden; his brothers of the Order of the Dragon. His allegiance was to no one but himself, and being the lone knight of the order who was in the service of the Dark Lord he was a man who was despised by his brethren, while merely tolerated by his employer.
As rain pelted relentlessly against the stone walls of the castle and the residents shivered, Judayah had once more been beckoned by Septimus, the illegitimate ruler of these lands. Together they had recently hatched a plan to draw to them a prize most precious, a famed knight of the order upon whom both had designs of revenge, yet as the days dragged on there was yet to be any sign of their target.
The great doors opened and Judayah was shown inside, where he found his master seated upon the carved wooden throne, a poor substitute for the one that he really sought.
‘Well? What news have you?’ Septimus enquired.
‘Have faith, my Lord,’ Judayah said, as he knelt before his employer.
‘Faith, you say?’ Septimus roared, as he threw a goblet half way across the room in his rage, its contents now spreading out across the stone floor. ‘I have a Warlock and a warrior who have both promised what it is that I seek, yet both say that I must be patient . . . that I must have faith . . .’
Judayah remained silent and steadfast, looking away only after Septimus had turned from him and went to a window and gazed out into the murky morning. It was only then that the knight had noticed the old Warlock standing quietly to one side, his face a picture of serenity in the shadow of Septimus’ fury, part of which had been directed at him.
Judayah studied the old man for a moment, seeing nothing there that he feared, before turning his attention back toward Septimus.
‘My Lord,’ Judayah offered while getting to his feet. ‘As your Warlock has already told you on numerous occasions, Luther is on the move, he is coming. There is a bond between this knight and the prisoner that goes beyond that which is normal between ordinary men,’ he added, with just a hint of disgust in his voice.
Slowly, Septimus turned around and faced his knight and studied him for quite a while. ‘So you have said before. Why then, if this ungodly bond is so strong, is he not here?’ he asked, fixing his black eyes upon the knight.
Judayah could not answer him.
‘Lord Septimus,’ the Warlock interjected calmly. ‘The knight has far to travel. You should fear not that he shall come to you, for I have forseen the occasion upon which you shall meet.’
‘And what else have you forseen, oh sightless one?’ Septimus demanded as he crossed the floor, his robes billowing out around him, before eventually standing in front of the old man, so close to him that the Warlock could smell and feel the stinking hot breath of his master upon his cheeks.
‘Only blood, my Lord,’ the Warlock replied quietly. ‘Flowing freely across the cobbled courtyard of the Palace of Jeebath.’
‘Jeebath? We meet at Jeebath?’
‘Not at first, my Lord. You shall first meet in Carronne. Of that I am certain. Jeebath is for a later time, yet I know not why.’
A sinister smirk slowly broke of Septimus’ face.
‘Yes!’ he almost whispered. ‘It shall be a good place to die. A good place for them both to die! Then I shall have both of their heads presented to me on a platter, while I sit upon the Golden Throne of Jeebath, and those sanctimonious fools who guard the throne while they await their true King shall be forced to kneel at my feet.’
Judayah could see that the Warlock was still perfectly calm, while Septimus had suddenly become quite animated, pacing up and down, his face fixed with that grin and with his eyes almost ablaze.
After a few minutes of his restless pacing Septimus suddenly stopped and looked around at the two men still in the room with him.
‘Pray that you are both correct,’ Septimus said to them, ‘for success shall mean riches for us all.’
‘And if we do not succeed, my Lord?’ Judayah enquired.
‘Then it will be the heads of others that shall be presented to me upon platters,’ Septimus leered. ‘Now be gone, both of you. Let me think in peace for a time.’
Without another word both men left the chamber and the heavy oak doors were slammed shut by Septimus’ personal guards, the sound of it echoing loudly up and down the corridor.
Judayah noticed that the peasant boy, Carel, had been waiting for the old Warlock when they had exited the vast chamber and he watched as the two of them shuffled down the corridor, before eventually disappearing from view. It was common knowledge within the castle that the pair shared more than just their quarters and for a moment he wondered what it might be like to bed the plain looking lad, as he was almost certain that the boy’s rather bedraggled clothing and appearance hid a strong and youthful body.
Behind him the guards resumed their position before the doors to Septimus’ chamber and the sound of two spears clanking together, being crossed in front of the doors, soon brought his attention back to matters of a more serious nature.
‘One day he shall truly thank me,’ the knight muttered as he glanced once more at the doors and their guards, before he too started down the corridors, passing the tapestries and portraits of ancient nobles that decorated the castle.
* * *
Nobody else had noticed that Jamal had slipped away from them, and so it came as a surprise to Luther that his companion had vanished when he eventually snapped out of the hypnotic trance in which he had found himself. He had been watching the constant downpour outside their shelter and had let his thoughts wander to times that were less complicated, while wishing with all his heart that times could be like that once more.
They could perhaps be like that again he thought, but when that would be, he knew not.
Glancing around their shelter he saw young Han holding his horse and that of his master, while Garrett himself was crouched down, examining something near one of the walls.
‘There have been others here before us,’ Garrett said as he noticed Luther’s eyes upon him.
‘That stands to reason,’ Luther replied. ‘It is a good place to shelter from the wrath of the Gods.’
‘And also to worship them,’ Garrett added, holding up a broken piece of pottery for his friend to see.
Luther walked over to him and took the broken shard from Garrett’s hand, turning it over and studying it carefully before handing it back to the other knight. It was adorned with the whole and undamaged image of Majid, their God of War, the very same God after which Luther had named his pinto stallion.
‘An auspicious sign,’ Luther remarked. ‘Bring it with you. It will be most fortuitous having the great God riding with us.’
‘You are our leader. You take it,’ Garrett demanded, thrusting the relic back at Luther. ‘The great Majid will protect and guide you through the days ahead.’
‘Let us hope so, my old friend. Let us hope so,’ Luther replied, while accepting the gift once more and shivering a little with the cold, as he did so.
Garrett stood up and faced his old friend, then looked about him.
‘Where is your boy?’ he asked, when he realised that Luther’s companion was not present.
‘I am unsure,’ Luther replied. ‘Perhaps it is time we looked for him?’
‘Of course,’ Garrett replied, before turning around to face his page and asking, ‘Han, did you see where he went?’
‘No sire, I did not. The last I saw of him he was back there,’ the boy replied, pointing toward the shadows that led deep into the hillside.
The two knights exchanged nervous glances, then almost simultaneously they placed their hands on the hilt of their swords and drew them from their scabbards.
‘Stay here with the horses, lad,’ Garrett ordered, before he and Luther started forward, moving silently toward the rear of their shelter.
The two knights were most cautious as they edged forward, lest some beast emerge from the shadows and devour them both, yet both were determined to discover to where it was that young Jamal had disappeared.
While Han watched from the entrance to the cave he saw them both pause for a moment and glance toward each other before then slowly moving forward. He watched as they were both gradually swallowed up by the shadows until when, moments later, they disappeared altogether, leaving him alone with only the horses and the howling winds and driving rain to keep him company.
In the shadows Luther and Garrett soon realised that they were in a tunnel of some sort, but there was something strange about this tunnel, for its walls were smooth and it was wide enough to allow a man and a horse to pass.
At the same time it was cool and smelled with damp.
After only a short while they found themselves looking forward into only blackness, and when they stopped and glanced back in the direction from where they had come they saw more of the same. Without their realising it, the passage had taken a turn, as they were now in total darkness, unable to see where they had come from, and unable to see where they were heading.
With Luther leading the way, feeling his way along the wall with one hand and firmly holding his sword with the other, the two knights crept forward, curious yet fearful as to what they may find and what may have become of Jamal. After only a short time they found that there was a pale light in the passage ahead of them and so it was with even greater caution they crept forward, with their way being made clearer with every passing step as the light strengthened.
Slowly the end of the passage came into view and as Garrett flattened himself against one wall of the passageway, Luther followed and flattened himself against the other, still edging closer and closer until they might eventually see what lay beyond.
Both men saw were astounded by what they saw, for at the end of the passage along which they had just come there was a massive cavern, with light and water pouring in through a small opening high up on the far side of the void. The water trickled down into a welcoming pool where its reflection shimmered off the pale coloured walls and ceiling, highlighting the numerous paintings on the rocks, which appeared old enough to have been painted by the hands of the ancients themselves.
There were images of horses and oxen and goats. There were images of battles and death, and of kings and queens. There were images of dragons and other beasts of the old ages.
Along one wall there was also what appeared to be an altar, upon which sat baskets with offerings to the gods. And in the middle of all this stood Jamal, looking around him in awe at the beauty of this sacred place.
Garrett started to walk forward, but Luther quickly placed a firm hand on his arm. Without a word Garrett submitted to Luther’s silent command.
This small action did not go unnoticed however, as immediately Jamal spun around to face the two knights, his face one of total rapture.
‘My lords,’ he exclaimed excitedly, his voice echoing in the vast chamber. Holding his arms out wide he turned a slow circle, showing all that the cavern held while he himself still looked around him in wonder. ‘Just look at this place! I have never seen such beauty. What can it be?’
‘It is a place of worship,’ Luther remarked as he and Garrett crossed the dirt floor to where Jamal stood. ‘In days gone by it would have been a place where the local people came to make their offerings to the Gods.’
‘And still do, it appears,’ Garrett added, as he headed toward the altar.
Jamal and Luther followed him and watched as Garrett held up a small basket containing some dried out foods and flowers.
‘It has been some time since any offerings have been made here, my friend,’ Luther remarked, as he ran a hand over the stone altar, brushing away a thick layer of dust. ‘And if you tried to sink your teeth into one of those loaves of bread, it would more than likely cause them to fall from your gums.’
‘Then perhaps we shan’t feast here this evening . . .’ Garrett replied, before shifting his gaze from Luther to something behind his friend and then adding, ‘Though we will drink from the Gods’ well and warm ourselves by the Gods’ fires!’
Luther and Jamal turned to see what had caught Garrett’s attention and they too noticed the pile of firewood stacked neatly along one wall.
A little further along that wall, half hidden in the shadows, they also found a manger which was partly filled with grasses from the plains below them.
‘It appears the Gods are watching over us,’ Garrett remarked as he held a handful of the grass up to show his companions.
‘Perhaps they are,’ Luther replied. ‘It appears that what we have found here is more than a place of worship for the Gods. It must be a place that is used as a shelter by the regular travelers of this route?’
‘That appears likely,’ answered Garrett.
‘Then let us waste no more time. Get a fire burning Garrett, while Jamal and I fetch Han and the horses. Tonight we shall take advantage of the hospitality of our hosts!’
* * *
The smell of food cooking in the warm kitchens led Judayah toward his favourite haunt within the entire castle, and by the time he reached the spiral stone staircase the uneasiness he had felt in the presence of his master was all but gone. In its place was a ravenous hunger that could only be quenched by a meal prepared by the infamous Ruby, followed by a generous helping of firm young flesh.
It had been several days since he had last visited the buxom woman and he was eager to hear what news she may have for him. She may not have been the most attractive woman in the castle, in fact she was often referred to as a hag, but in addition to her many skills in the kitchen she was a veritable fountain of information for the knight.
When he reached the bottom of the staircase Judayah stopped and looked around the kitchen, breathing in deeply the tantalising smell of freshly baked bread, and finding the woman he sought standing by a bench, plucking the feathers from a decapitated chicken.
‘Ahhh . . . my beauty,’ Judayah cooed as he crossed the floor to where the woman stood, giving her a firm pat on her massive buttocks and hearing her giggle like a school girl. ‘How goes it with you?’
‘Much as you would expect in a place such as this,’ she replied. ‘And with you?’
‘Our Lord is an ungrateful swine,’ he spat, while popping a grape from a nearby bowl of fruit into his mouth. ‘But I shall fare well from our latest endeavours.’
The woman laughed.
‘Do you ever fare anything but well, dear Judayah?’
‘Only on rare occasions,’ he answered, as he settled onto a wooden stool opposite her, from where he could survey the entire kitchen and those within it.
Picking up a freshly baked bun from a tray at the end of the bench, the knight broke it apart and started to eat, all the while glancing around the kitchen as if he were searching for something. Or someone.
She knew what, or more correctly, who it was that he was looking for of course, but she thought she would tease him for just a few minutes more before she said anything, quite enjoying the small hold that she had over him.
Over these past months there had been much that had passed between the unlikely pair. The knight was keen to learn all that he could of the castle and its peoples and over many mugs of wine, with a few gold coins thrown in for good measure, not only did he now know the innermost secrets of the castle, but he had developed a taste for more than just the food on offer in the castle kitchens.
Ruby had educated the knight as to the particular qualities of all of those who were in her charge, just as she herself had personally educated each of them. They had all come to her as orphans or as homeless beggars and all had been grateful for their newfound station in life. She found that some of them had broken-in quite willingly to her needs, while others had required a little more persuasion, but all of them had eventually come around to her way of thinking.
As she stood there by the bench, plucking her chickens and chatting idly with the knight, she watched him glancing furtively around the room and wondered which of her staff it would be that would satisfy his desires on this day.
Katarina, the young girl with her hair the colour of straw, looked a likely prospect. Not yet ravaged and made to grow old before her time by years of hard service in the castle kitchens, and with a body that was yet to grow plump from constant work in the kitchens, she was definitely one upon which the knight had his eye firmly fixed.
Ruby remembered well the first time she had sent the girl to the pantry for something and then followed her into the small room herself, shutting the door behind them. The girl had been scared at first, but had soon warmed to the soft touch of another human being and now she was one of the cook’s favourites, coming readily to the woman’s bed on cold nights.
There was also the buxom, raven-haired beauty that walked with a slight limp, from an injury given to her as a child by her captors. She had caught the eye of the knight and according to Ruby, this one was the most experienced of all. This was something that Judayah had once doubted; however, it wasn’t long before he too had become a true believer. And judging by the furtive looks the girl gave the knight each time he entered the kitchen it appeared to Ruby that she was well pleased with what the knight had to offer as well.
Knowing all too well the habits of many a knight, however, it came as no surprise when she noticed that it wasn’t one of her girls who most intrigued Judayah, but a lad named Tobias.
The boy had originally been sent to her as an undernourished and timid orphan and it was more than kitchen skills that he had learned from the woman. He had grown into a tall, though rather thin boy, who was no longer a child but not quite yet a man. He carried himself with a cocky air of confidence that bespoke of his experience with the carnal pleasures, with both sexes, and with his flirtatious manner often driving people to the very brink.
From that first day that the knight had laid eyes on the lad Ruby knew exactly what it was that this knight preferred, despite his feigned attention toward the girls in her care. It was therefore with some relish that she described the lads’ particular talents, watching the knights eyes narrow as he looked Tobias up and down, and offering an involuntary lick of his lips. Ruby knew that she had him hooked, which gave her a hold over him that she thought may one day prove useful. Yes, she knew of course that it was this one that he desired more than any other.
She also knew, however, that there could be trouble should the knight succeed in bedding Tobias, as the lad was also the friend of the boy who tended the Warlock and should anything befall him, then it could well be upon all of their heads.
No, this was one of her charges that she could not let fall into the hand of this traitorous swine that called himself a knight. He may have all that gold and wine which Ruby loved so much, but there was no way she was going to let this poor excuse for a man get his hands on her Toby. No way at all.
‘So, my dear Ruby,’ the knight whispered, edging closer to the old woman so that they were in a conspiratorial huddle. ‘Where is your precious Tobias today? I don’t see him anywhere.’
‘He is not here,’ the woman said softly. ‘He has gone off looking for the warlock’s boy. It seems they have taken quite a shine to each other.’
The knight scowled, but then the knight had a vision of the pair of them together in some hidden corner of the castle, with him finding them in the throes of their friendship and a wicked grin came over his face.
‘There is always Katarina?’ the woman offered, sensing that the knight may go in search of the pair.
Judayah shifted his gaze from the old woman to the younger one, then tilted his head slightly as if studying her from a different angle.
‘Yes . . .’ he eventually replied. The smile soon faded from his face as he quickly weighed up the probability of his being able to find the two boys anywhere in the vast castle. ‘I suppose there is, isn’t there?’
To be continued . . .